Giving Thought: A glimpse of pandemic life in an assisted living complex

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, seniors have been pegged as a high-risk group, many of whom have underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to the coronavirus.

For that reason, it’s good news to hear about an assisted living facility in the Aspen-to-Parachute region where nobody has gotten sick with COVID-19 over the past year and where, despite the gloves, hand sanitizer, face masks and social distancing, things have continued mostly as they were beforehand.

Mesa Vista Assisted Living is an aptly named 37-unit apartment building in Battlement Mesa with a sweeping view of the striated Roan Cliffs above Parachute. The complex is operated by a Denver nonprofit called Senior Housing Options, which caters specifically to low-income seniors and adults with disabilities. The Mesa Vista staff numbers about 20 people who take pride in building a sense of community among the residents and keeping the elderly population busy and active.

During the pandemic, community volunteers have shopped for the Mesa Vista residents and delivered their groceries. The local fire department held a Christmas street parade outside the complex. Daily activities have long included outdoor walks, but the strolls now occur with participants wearing masks, and walking at a distance from one another.

Jim Goddard, CEO of Senior Housing Options, admits that COVID-19 has posed challenges for the Mesa Vista staff, but he applauds the way the employees have adapted and their willingness to follow all the demanding pandemic protocols.

“It’s a lot of responsibility for the staff because they are the biggest risk to the residents,” Goddard said. “Staff members have had to be super cautious in their personal lives in order to protect the residents. I’m really proud of them.”

Since someone needs to be on-site 24 hours per day, there are three employee shifts at Mesa Vista. Staff members are screened every day and tested for the virus once per week. The facility had gone for nearly a year without a positive COVID-19 result, but on Jan. 4 Mesa Vista had to lock down. Interestingly, the positive test result came not from a young staff member with a lively social life, but from an elderly resident who displayed no symptoms. They were unable to contact-trace the infection, but since residents rarely leave the complex except to visit their doctors, Administrator Kathy Budau suspects the contact might have occurred at a medical facility.

“This person was not ill, no one was hospitalized, no one even had symptoms,” she said.

But the quarantine, which lasted for 16 days, proved difficult for the residents. Suddenly the dining room closed and social interaction ceased. People felt isolated, and they were. The big meal of each day had been lunch, but during the lockdown meals had to be delivered directly to residents’ rooms, Budau explained.

“During the quarantine,” she said, “they were struggling.”

On the day after the quarantine ended, however, Mesa Vista residents were given their first round of the two-shot COVID-19 vaccine, which lifted spirits considerably. Some staff members hesitated to get the shot, but Budau expects most will participate eventually.

“The residents here were very excited about getting the vaccine,” Budau said. “We had a couple of residents who didn’t get the vaccine the first time but will get it the next time, now that they see everybody is feeling OK.”

The booster vaccine will be administered Feb. 11, she added. And while the Mesa Vista staff expects to wear gloves and masks and follow COVID protocols for the foreseeable future, the level of comfort and safety is beginning to return to something closer to “normal.”

“We got over the hump,” Goddard said. “We do feel positive.”

And the view of the colorful Roan Cliffs across the Colorado River Valley remains as beautiful as ever.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.